Punishing Immigrants

THE United States has a legitimate problem controlling the flow of illegal immigrants across its border with Mexico.

California alone has an estimated 1.6 million illegal aliens. Some 300,000 attend its public schools. All can make use of welfare, medical treatment, and other social services at taxpayers' expense. With the state just emerging from a severe recession, it's easy to understand why many Californians would question the wisdom of spending tax money on those who are in the state illegally.

This citizen frustration has manifested itself in the form of a Save Our State (SOS) ballot initiative, Proposition 187, which would cut off welfare, education, nonemergency health care, and other social services to illegal immigrants. It would require teachers and health officials to report any suspected illegal immigrants to authorities.

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If passed, Prop. 187 will not result in real change for many years - if ever. Several aspects of it will be challenged in court as unconstitutional. Instead, Prop. 187's real role seems to be to tell lawmakers to do something about illegal immigration.

Fair enough. But passage of Prop. 187 sends another message, one that we believe most people planning to vote for it don't intend. It tells Hispanics - and, by extension, other non-Anglos - that they are not wanted in California. It would send a chill through ethnic communities and aggravate racial tensions. It has an unmistakable undertone of bigotry.

The measure is opposed by Attorney General Janet Reno, the nation's top law enforcement officer, who had long experience with immigration issues during previous government service in Florida. US Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner opposes it too. Prominent Republicans Jack Kemp and William Bennett have spoken against it, showing that conservatives need not back it as an article of faith.

What can be done instead? Operation Gatekeeper, put in place last month along a six-mile stretch south of San Diego, is showing that with proper staffing, funds, and new techniques, many more illegal immigrants can be turned back at the border. In the long term, the US must continue to help improve economic opportunities in Mexico and Central America, lessening the incentive to migrate north. After all, these immigrants are only seeking what immigrants to America have always sought: an opportunity for a better life.

Prop. 187 addresses an important public concern. But it is a desperate and cynical approach, and its effects would be inhumane. We're convinced there is a better way.

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